Since Steve Jobs’ death there has been a running discussion in the press and academia over what builds great businesses: great leaders, who pull a company along by their vision; or great teams that operate through collegiality. Naturally there is always a bit of both in any business equation. But for communicators the issue of the star-CEO looms very large.
Advisors offer plans for building up the image of the CEO as a leader, or “corporate statesman,” and the members of the C-suite as cabinet officers shaping big campaigns to win the confidence of employees and other stakeholders. This aligns with a lot of management self-help books in which CEOs are urged to emulate Winston Churchill or Julius Caesar. The problem is, the scorecard of companies run by imperial CEOs is poor. Communications advisors who urge their clients to operate with a top-down vision may be setting them up for failure. This is because, to a large degree, corporate success is a bottom-up process. Long-term success happens in the wider organization.
A number of major studies, most especially by management expert Jim Collins, show that the CEOs who build sustainable growth tend to be highly driven, yet humble. They don’t put a spotlight on themselves. Instead, their messages are all about building their companies as great institutions. They endeavor to connect with individuals and small groups throughout the company with comparative disregard to corporate rank. As one might imagine, many of these CEOs are rarely heard about, because they do not seek the limelight.
That type of CEO tends to be challenging to PR experts, who fixate heavily on press results as a measure of success. This emphasis on press limelight is reinforced by investor behavior, which focuses on CEO image in making an investment decision.
Yet for a communications chief to have the most impact on a company’s fortunes, they should be enabling their CEO to create the best internal environment possible. Identifying the key individuals and groups within the company, and shaping communications to reach them, is a top priority.
Moreover, connecting the CEO personally to the best and most passionate individuals within the company cannot always be guided by the boxes on an organizational chart. It is essential to tap into informal networks as well. Companies are an amalgam of complex individual and group relations whose workings, like society overall, are tough to encapsulate. Key individuals and groups—such as the design divisions of car companies or the researchers in biotech firms—create great value.
Managing such talent is an absolutely vital part of the CEO’s job. Yet the discipline of communications has remarkably little to say about how to help the CEO steer and mobilize talent. PR in this case often takes on a cookie-cutter formula: organizing town halls which often homogenize audiences and messages to little impact; small group brainstorms, which studies indicate produce few productive ideas; and CEO blogs, which are often sanitized of any meaningful messages.
What this means in practice is a shift in the model in which many C-suites are organized. This shift should include:
Empowerment of the communications departments to focus more closely on what motivates centers of excellence in the firm. Communications officers have the expertise to enable the positive flow of ideas and aspirations, as much as products and services. They are also in the best position to help the CEO connect with employees.
A much closer partnership between the human resources and communications functions. In many corporations these departments only get together during times of crisis. Encouraging a healthy, ongoing interchange between HR and communications is, however, the best practice.
Communicators must be willing—indeed enthusiastic—about being drivers of change within their organizations. Indeed, stimulating healthy feelings and creative commitment within the firm will have a positive impact on the perceptions of external audiences.
After all, the days in which it was possible to separate the external reputation of the company from the internal world has long since evaporated in the Internet age. PRN
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Andrew Goldberg is EVP of Makovsky + Company’s Corporate Advisors practice specializing in change management and reputation counseling. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.